The Blog

Strengthening Our Japanese Alliance

Why the United States should sell the F-22 to its most important Asian ally.

11:00 PM, Jan 7, 2009 • By DAN BLUMENTHAL
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Of the many items on President-elect Obama's foreign policy to-do list, one of the most important long-term tasks is repairing America's relationship with its key Asian ally, Japan. Though often taken for granted by American policymakers, Japan is the linchpin of America's strategic position in Asia. Since the end of World War II, the U.S.-Japan alliance has underwritten the relative peace in Asia that has allowed the region to prosper.

While the relationship was attended to with renewed vigor during the early years of the Bush administration, the outgoing president's North Korea policy and lean toward Beijing has alarmed policymakers in Tokyo, and set the relationship on a downward spiral.

Now the president-elect has a chance to revitalize the Japanese alliance while at the same time creating high paying American jobs during a recession, reducing the costs of recapitalizing its U.S. air fleet, and improving America's strategic position in Asia. How? He can sell the F-22 fifth generation fighter aircraft to Japan.

Tokyo is in the market for a new air-superiority aircraft. The Japan Air Self- Defense Force currently has three fighter jet models in its fleet: an F-15 variant, a Vietnam era F-4, and the F-2 (a longer-range variant of the F-16C). But Japan will begin retiring the F-4 platform entirely early next decade.

To retain its ability to maintain dominance over Japan's airspace, Tokyo needs a fighter that can outperform China's growing fleet of Su-30s. The F-22 is unmatched in range, stealth, speed and reconnaissance capability.

Moreover, since 2001, the United States and Japan have made great strides in their ability to defend against common threats. The two countries have set up a combined air operations center to help meet the growing regional air and missile threat Tokyo's possession of the F-22 would further Washington's longstanding goal of increasing the two countries' interoperability.

Washington's sale of the F-22 to Japan would also help reduce unit costs of the plane for the U.S. Air Force. The USAF originally wanted to purchase 700 to 800 F-22 fighters, but was told they needed to cut their buy to 442, then 381, and finally 180. These cuts have substantially increased the cost per aircraft, and now F-22 production may end by 2010. The U.S. military is concerned about its long-term ability to maintain air dominance in the Asia-Pacific, with China's vast airpower advances. Exporting the F-22 to Japan would keep the production line open and allow the air force to purchase more aircraft at a lower price. An added benefit for the Obama administration is that many good manufacturing jobs would be saved, and created, by producing more F-22s. Approximately 95,000 American (mostly union) workers help produce or are suppliers for the aircraft.

So what are the downsides? Some argue that the F-22's technology is too advanced to sell to anyone and that Japan has already leaked information about its Aegis- class destroyer. But if Washington's defense policy of building strong partnerships is to have any real meaning, it must be ready to sell advanced technology to key allies. Washington's technology transfer policies remained mired in Cold War-thinking, designed to keep U.S. technology out of the hands of the Soviets. Today, there is broad consensus in the defense policy-making community that U.S. arms sales policy should be to build up the strength and capacity of allies to defend themselves. It is time to change a policy that does the reverse. Moreover, Japan has no record of proliferating advanced technology.

Others say that the sale of F-22s to Japan will enrage South Korea and "create an arms race" with China. Is it true that South Korea, America's other key ally in Northeast Asia is, for historical reasons, still suspicious of Tokyo. Washington can mitigate these concerns by pushing for closer three way ties among Seoul, Tokyo, and Washington, while quietly urging Japan to be more forthcoming about its past with South Korea. Tokyo has no aggressive intent, and regards South Korea as an ally. And, there is no reason why South Korea should be prohibited from buying the F-22 if they indicate an interest.

The China question is somewhat more complex. There may be an emerging "arms race" in Asia, but so far only one country is off to the races: China. Over the past decade it has deployed more that 1,000 ballistic and cruise missiles and 300 advanced fighter aircraft to its Southern coast. Japan, for obvious reasons, is concerned. The task for the U.S.-Japan alliance is to maintain a regional political system that China does not dominate. At this stage, this means a greater military presence in the region to check China's destabilizing military advances.

The time has come to stop talking about the need for a favorable balance of power in Asia, and to begin to act. Exporting the F-22 to Japan makes sound strategic and military sense. President-elect Obama could improve alliance relations, further America's Asia-Pacific defense policy, and create good jobs at home. Once alliance relations are righted, the United States and its allies can continue to engage China on issues of common interest from a position of strength.

Dan Blumenthal is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.